HBO has made a name for itself over the last quarter century as the home of prestige TV, and although recent years have seen others join the party, HBO's brand of prestige TV remains distinct. Maybe it's the the premium channel's executive oversight or its (historically) deep pockets. Or maybe, more simply, it all comes down to the channel's truly heroic lineage of excellent grumps.
Perhaps best exemplified by the man at the center of the channel's longest running series — Larry David — virtually all of HBO's signature shows have had at least one grump. Be they men, women, senior citizens, captains of industry, or working moms, here are ten iconic HBO characters who always seem to wake up on the wrong side of the bed.
The Sopranos was a good enough show to warrant two entries on this list (and honestly, the more we think of Uncle Junior, the more we think it should have three). But there is no one on this list with a better default grumpy mug on his face than Paulie Walnuts (Tony Sirico). His normal, everyday expression clearly communicates "fuck this." That, second only to his impeccabe gray-winged hairstyle, is why Paulie was the Tony Soprano underling that best resonated with fans. Paulie reacted to every development from the twin perspectives of a) "How is this going to affect me?" and b) "I don't need this aggravation." Honestly, Paulie? We're right there with you.
Stepping out of the realm of scripted television, let's take a moment and recognize Bill Maher for what he is: a grumpy, cranky atheist who peppers grumbling observations about the crappiness of modern life into his political musings. Never is Maher more of a grump than when his studio audience reacts poorly to one of his jokes. At which point he turns on their too-sensitive nature and carps at them until he gets pity applause. It's like your grandpa getting a studio audience for when he talks back to the TV news.
This was an easy call. Logan (Brian Cox), the patriarch of the disgustingly rich Roy media dynasty, never met a piece of news nor a male heir in his bloodline that he couldn't sneer at until all their crops withered and their souls died of fright. And while you might be tempted to chalk up all of Logan's growling to alpha-male business strategy, know that he was just as grumpy in the beginning of Season 1 when he was peeing on the office floor. And if you don't agree with his placement here, you can go fly your fuckin' whirlybird.
As the beleaguered husband of striving actress Valerie Cherish (Lisa Kudrow), "Marky Mark" (Damian Young) was the picture of put-upon, and eventually, all those aggravations and micro-embarrassments led to him calcifying into a cranky grumpus of a husband, best exemplified in The Comeback's second season. While at first it was hard not to sympathize with Mark for everything Valerie made him endure, by the end, all that grumpiness seemed unfair to a sweet soul like Valerie.
Of the four main protagonists of Sex and the City, Samantha (Kim Cattrall) was the sexually aggressive one, Charlotte (Kristen Davis) was the demure one, Carrie (Sarah Jessica Parker) was the one whose long-term romantic prospects we're meant to be most invested in, and Miranda (Cynthia Nixon) was the one who was there to reflect our grumpiness with the way the world works for single people (and then single mothers, and finally partnered mothers). No wonder Nixon was the one who eventually ran for Governor of New York. She was the most attuned to our current grumpy national moment.
Will McAvoy (Jeff Daniels) kicked off the pilot episode of The Newsroom by giving an all-time classic grumpy old man speech about America and how both sides of the political debate have it wrong, but nobody has it more wrong than sorority girls. From that point forward, Will was grumpy about everything from email to ratings to simple human relationships as he endeavored save American TV news from its own terrible instincts,
The many corners of Westeros and the lands beyond it were plentiful with contenders for this list of grumpy icons. And while some of the realm's most ill-tempered figures would be best defined by other adjectives — Olenna Tyrell (Diana Rigg) was more sharp and vicious than cranky; Gregor "The Mountain" Clegane (Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson) was a crusher of heads more than a simple grump. Tywin Lannister (Charles Dance)? Now there was a grumpy old patriarch if ever there was one, forever grumbling about his disappointing children and never truly able to enjoy the spoils of lording rule over an entire kingdom.
We were spoiled for choices when it came to picking out the grumpiest character on Deadwood. First of all, there was Al Swearengen, who never met a piece of news that he didn't view with an appropriate amount of ill fuckin' temper. But take a tour around the camp, and everyone from clench-jawed sheriff Seth Bullock (Timothy Olyphant), to rival saloon owner Cy Tolliver (Powers Booth), to perpetually overburdened Doc Cochrane (Brad Dourif) are in the foulest of moods basically all the time. Foulest of them all, however, is Calamity Jane (Robin Weigert), whose sweet soul is most often buried beneath a lake of booze, bringing out the side of her personality that wants to tell any man who crosses her path exactly where they can stick it. As she once responded to E.B. Farnum's (William Sanderson) request that she "be brief" in her visit to Alma Garrett (Molly Parker), Jane's retort said it all: "Be fucked!"
The grump as passive-aggressive emotional terrorist. That Livia was such a constant source of daily agita and deep-seated emotional pain for her son, Tony (James Gandolfini), was one of the main pillars of the first two Sopranos seasons. As portrayed by Nancy Marchand, Livia was calculating and cruel… but she was also an elite level complainer — about everything from her caregivers, to her food, to the frequency of her children's visits. In Livia, the common conception of the grumpy old lady was weaponized, wreaking havoc on Tony's life.
Of course Larry is going to be our #1. Does anybody have a better legacy of grumpiness? He was the inspiration and the guiding voice behind Seinfeld's George Costanza, one of TV's great malcontents. Then he took his talents to HBO, where he's been crabbing about the social contract and all its subclauses ever since. In recent years he's also been Saturday Night Live's go-to choice to portray Bernie Sanders, an uncanny pairing of actor and real-life political figure, if only because Bernie Sanders also seems like he might be bothered by everything about modern life as well.
Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.